Language, for the playwright and performer Aleshea Harris, is medium and character at once. Her plays perform themselves visually on the page long before they reach the stage; dialogue leaps across margins, changing size and typeface the way a human voice might shift in volume or tone. As they reckon with racism and misogyny, centering Black characters and underrepresented geographies, the plays shine a light on what is often overlooked—about both people and the words by which they understand each other. In August, Harris spoke with her mentor, the poet and librettist Douglas Kearney, whose typographically experimental poetry collections have earned him honors from the Whiting Foundation and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. (Kearney was in Rondo, the neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he lives.) Their conversation touched on translating the ineffable, contending with anti-Blackness, and the complex realities of anger and vulnerability.
Douglas Kearney You and your work have been in spaces with varying degrees of support and varying degrees of resistance to what you were doing. Would you care to talk about how you’ve navigated some of that?
Aleshea Harris Sometimes I still feel bound by resistance, external or self-imposed, to what I want to do. For example, with Is God Is (2016), I had moved away from a reactive space and was really dancing in my Black radical imagination, if you will. And then, with the success of What to Send Up When It Goes Down (2018)—and this moment that we’re in, and the way that some folks are understanding anew what anti-Blackness is and how it is destructive—there’s a feeling that again I’ve been pushed into a reactive space. A space where, when people want to talk to me on a panel about What to Send Up…, it’s about anti-Blackness and about my anger around it.
Recently, I was working on a play that I had a tough time with. I was trying to do some of the things I had already done, I think successfully, in What to Send Up…. So it was like, “What else do you want to do, Aleshea? Where are you now in your journey, without the noise of white racist fuckery?” I ask myself continually, “Is it a betrayal to be like, ‘Forget that—I’m not talking about that?’” Is it a betrayal of my people? Of my purpose? But we don’t exist in a vacuum. So no matter what I do, that’s coming with me, right?
AH What allowed me to finish that play—literally a few days ago!—was a reminder that healing for me is in the subversion of that noise and that expectation placed on me by other folks that I’ve allowed into my head to wag their fingers at me. Anything I do—anything I do—is going to be resistance. I know my own stories. I know some of the stories in the collective. So I can gleefully in my psyche be like, “I know what the fuck y’all want, but this is what I’m doing.” That’s what I’ve landed at.
I felt such a healing in that. And it’s fun, artistically and aesthetically. It’s not the same old thing. But I think this question of whether or not to speak directly to the challenges of being in the minority must come up for all artists who belong to oppressed communities. Where are you with all of this?
DK I love that you launched this in a way that talked about your agency. I hear in what you’re saying both awareness and a resistance to repeating yourself without having a particular critical interest in that repetition. For you, I would see that as also being about a sort of safety. And for you—as anybody knows who’s followed your work or had a conversation with you—that kind of safety is deeply boring. If there is one thing that you are allergic to as much as white supremacy, it’s boredom. [Laughs.]
So, to answer the question you asked, “Where do I find myself in that space of responsibility?” there’s always for me that question of, “Does my work do enough?” I’m always grappling with that. Is it useful? And if it is, I wonder whether I am writing what I feel like writing. These often overlap for me, and I value that. That sense of serving the culture and doing whatever the fuck you want—whether it’s happening thematically or in terms of form or approach—is something I treasure. If I feel challenged by what I’m called to make, then pleasurably engaged while I’m composing it, and then, if I’m all: “Whoa, what is that?” afterwards—those might be indicators of truly feeling I did what I actually wanted to do.
AH Do you forget things you’ve written? Because I do all the time, and then I get so pumped for what past Aleshea was up to. I found something yesterday, a first draft of that piece I finished a few days ago, and I thought, “Bitch, you were killing it.” [Laughs.] Does that happen?
DK I keep journals and I also keep computer drafts and shit. About four or five months ago I was looking at old drafts, and I was like, “Damn, you’re just wild on this one.” It was from way back in the day when I was first thinking about The Black Automaton poems—from my second book, The Black Automaton (2009)—which then became these performative typographies in the work. It was this riff off the colonialism and racism in Indiana Jones movies, called “The Black Automaton versus The Temple of Doom.” Yeah, that shit was exciting as hell.
Anything you’d keep from your first draft? That you’d go back to?
AH I wrote it years ago, but it resonates so deeply in this moment when we’re dealing with COVID. It’s a piece that plays on small-town tropes in a place that has its own consuming dogma. There are these rules in the town that I found exciting. Like, if someone got a certain kind of cough they had to walk this long road that was essentially the road to their death. It was an exile imposed on anyone who had an illness or looked odd or got too old as far as the society was concerned.
So much of what I’m trying to talk about in this new play is the structures within the town that are repressive. In light of that, the road is so odd and discomfiting, which is my jam, and so true. I may go back in and retool that and see where it goes.
DK Talk about rich. The excitement of what could happen if the person who’s on that road encounters someone or doesn’t. Of course, it makes me think about how time works in your plays. Time is weather in your work. What does “rep and rev”—the idea of repetition and revision in theater that Suzan-Lori Parks developed from the blues and jazz—do to time? It transforms our relationship to time; if this is a compositional idea that’s rooted in Afro-diasporic cultural practice, then it goes back to what you were saying, which is, “When are you not in it?”
When I was working on the Sweet Land opera (2020), there were times where I felt, “Okay, this is not going to be a scene where a person goes, ‘Ah, this is a Black character. This is a Black story in those trope-ish ways.’” But that’s only one way of presencing Blackness in a work of art. If I write a libretto using Black-identified cultural techniques and compositional ideas, then there doesn’t have to be a single Black person walking across the environment. As we well know, you can have an entire cast full of Black people, and it can be the most anti-Black thing you’ve ever seen.
DK It’s extraordinarily important for you to make that present as a part of your practice. But it’s also important as an artist right now to remind people about the possibility of saturation of viewpoint, of outlook, that is specifically Aleshea Harris. It is specifically the fact that Aleshea Harris is a Black woman in the early twenty-first century interested in the tricky history of Black performance on- and off-stage. It’s the fuckery being examined a little bit more closely, maybe, and so again those two things—the public space of the cultural and the private space of the personal, here—are not contradictory. You can hold two things at the same time. That’s just reality.
AH Let’s talk about translating the dineffable, a term you use in the essay “Din,” from your book Mess and Mess and (2015). When I encountered that word in your essay, I was like, “Do I just not know this word? I know this word!” I’d love to know what it means to you.
DK Absolutely. The “Din” section of the book—which came out in 2015 from Noemi Press’s Infidel Poetics Series, published by Carmen Giménez Smith—is playing on this idea of din as being the suggestion of noise, loudness, but also spinning off into pun around the prefix “in-,” as in “not.” But it also spirals into all these negative ideas of “din,” like dinginess and all that. The dineffable—and I’ll just quote the essay here—is “a state in which something, often because of extremis or intensity, can only be described via signal that seems noise.” Something that was important in Mess and Mess and was the idea of this binary of noise and signal, noise being a kind of frequency without any real information, and signal being the opposite, this frequency that’s full of information. There’s babble and there’s the communication, the message. I was thinking about how much of Black shit people think is just noise—and how often, in our attempts to talk to people, we code-switch out of signal to something that is actually noisier to us. But I also think of the power of what it means to be able to make signal that seems like noise to other people. What it means to walk into a raucous house party, and you can read it. The danger of that of course is that if the wrong person walks into that house party and misreads it, they might call the police. So how do people who don’t know what the fuck’s going on try to read that situation? How does their imposition of signal versus noise or noise versus signal create a situation?
Dineffability in some ways is about when you and I—both of us people who produce texts—are writing in such a way that we are aware that some readers are going to see it as noise, and some readers are going to see it as signal. What does that mean for our writing? What does that mean when we’re writing something that we’re aware certain readers or audiences are just going to say, “Oh, okay, this is the part where I can tune out. This is a break.” Whereas for us, it might be the most important part. And even when they do understand it as signal, its proximity to noise might make them misread it.
Have you ever listened to the Roots album Rising Down (2008)?
AH I don’t know that album.
DK The first track on it, “The Pow Wow,” is this recording of a phone conversation between Questlove, Black Thought, and A. J. Shine, an early manager. They’re arguing, and I think it’s Black Thought who gets super heated-sounding. He’s, like, screaming on the phone. Now if you hear it and you are inclined to put noise on any moment of Black elevated and mood, you might just hear anger. But if you heard this thing right now, it would break your heart because he sounds so scared. This is a person who has been dreaming for so long, and right now he thinks it might get taken away from him. He’s talking to some of his biggest confidants and partners in this process and going, “How did you all let this get here? How did we get here?”
That’s the first thing on the album. To me, I feel like at some level they put that on there to be dineffable. It’s on there to say, “Some of you are not going to hear this.” Or: “You’re only going to hear this one thing. But we’re trying to tell you something.” In that way, maybe it’s the opposite of a dog whistle. ’Cause a dog whistle says, “We ain’t saying nothing.” There’s an alibi in that. But dineffability says, “We said it. We just knew you wouldn’t be paying attention. We knew that you were predisposed to not believe that we would feel this way, that you would think we’d just be talking loud and ain’t saying nothing. But we said it.”
AH I am grateful for all of that. It made me think about how I have sometimes used a broad stroke of anger to talk about what propels my work, and I wonder if that’s an erasure of nuances within it—if I myself am not thinking with complexity about what I’m doing. When I use the word anger, and the emotion of anger, it feels protective. This is something that I am growing and will continue to grow out of, artistically and personally. I wonder if there’s something about the way that I’m like, “Yeah, I’m angry about misogynoir and that’s why Is God Is is what it is, and that’s why What to Send Up… is what it is: anger about anti-Blackness.” But if my anger is for white people or for non-Black folks, what do I have for my folks?
I think what I have to offer my folks that’s more useful than my anger—because I don’t feel fed by other Black folks’ anger, necessarily—is vulnerability. That’s the signal as you speak of it, the signal that says, “I’ve experienced something similar in academia, in this space or that space. Come and be with me around that thing.” It feels more community-minded and more nurturing to myself and anyone who experiences my work. If there weren’t pain—if I didn’t feel like I wasn’t safe and I needed to grab hold of a life raft—I wouldn’t make the work. Just being brave enough to acknowledge that feels important. And to not reduce my work—which is a lot of signal that’s very deeply considered—to what people will do with the word anger as attached to work by a Black woman.
DK I want to testify to the fact that I’ve never heard Aleshea Harris anywhere say that the only reason she wrote something was because she was angry. I’ve heard you say anger has helped you keep writing. I’ve heard you say anger has helped you make artistic decisions that you might have slacked off of. So I want to first and foremost amplify what you’ve said in other spaces: anger that incites something has to be understood as different from anger as a theme.
This doesn’t mean that anger won’t appear in the writing. You could be angry that a play with love as its core theme has to exist in a world where that love will inevitably be read as resistance to whiteness. But there’s a difference between saying, “Every time I do something, it is a ritual in which I’m engaged with Black culture, Blackness, and all of these constructions,” and saying, “And therefore that ritual is a tool of resistance.”
Your work also investigates what happens when characters explore anger onstage in different ways. Is God Is and What to Send Up… have very different modes of thinking through anger. Anger as protection, on the one hand, and yet also anger as the potential, as we see in Is God Is, for self-immolation. It’s interesting to think about anger within the ecosystem of an Aleshea Harris play: anger that is not tied to a sense of justice. Anger outside of justice.
AH Anger outside of justice. That’s really provoking. How much of your typographical exploration is about trying to translate the ineffable or the dineffable?
DK The major development in my typographical work right now is how not to be a body in front of people reading these poems. I’ve recently started talking about the three different kinds of software I use to make poems; there are Microsoft Word poems, InDesign poems, and Photoshop poems. The recent poems have tended to be Photoshop poems—poems that I have no intention of ever reading in front of people. Part of that is that I am critical of violence against Black people being combined or conflated with spectacle. I use my poetry frequently as a way of articulating that critique. And yet I can perform these poems with as much spectacle as possible. Now this is a huge part of the African American aesthetic tradition: many of us have used our art to present violence against ourselves, our kin, our kith, our neighbors. But I began to feel a way about doing a poem about James Byrd, Jr. being dragged behind a pickup truck and then either hearing applause when it was done or getting myself into a position to do a Q&A and having to shift modes. I wanted to create work where I literally couldn’t do the poems any kind of justice by performing them in front of people.